Women in Translation Month: Judith Schalansky

WITMonth15Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good fair few. Today we’re heading over to Germany. I read this book in the original, but it has been translated very skillfully into English by Shaun Whiteside, published by Bloomsbury.

schalanskyJudith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe (The Neck of the Giraffe)

Inge Lohmark is a biology and sports teacher in a ‘Gymnasium’ (selective state school, grammar school equivalent) in a provincial town in what was once East Germany. The town is dying, as is the school, forced to close soon because of lack of pupils. Everyone dreams of escaping from that claustrophobic place to search for jobs or a better life, including Inge’s own daughter, who has been living in the States for the past 10-12 years.

Inge, however, is inflexible and judgemental. She believes in the survival of the fittest and refuses to intervene in bullying incidents. Although she teaches biological adaptation, she is unwilling to alter any of her principles and firmly-held beliefs herself. Short shrift, military in style, believing any display of emotion or affection to be a weakness, her style is perfectly captured with the short, staccato sentences, often without verbs, like barked orders. She is the teacher we all feared and loved to hate or mock at school.

Her story is in many ways the story of my parents’ generation, for whom the fall of Communism came too late and who will never be able to adapt to a new world they do not understand nor like very much. Because of my own experience with recalcitrant relatives who live in a nostalgia of a life that never really was the way they remember it, I have more patience for Inge than most readers would. Many of her acerbic observations of modern life and young students will strike a chord, perhaps provoke a wry smile of recognition. She is also a profoundly lonely person, barely sharing a word with her husband – who is immersed in his ostrich farm – and rarely engaging in conversations with her colleagues or neighbours, unless they become arguments or point-scoring exercises.

Example of illustrations from the book.
Example of illustrations from the book.

The book is presented entirely from Inge’s point of view and I have to admit that I would have liked to see her through the eyes of others at some point. There are also plenty of digressions about the animal kingdom and evolution theory, with some beautiful illustrations. These digressions are quite interesting and (of course) symbolical, albeit not always in the way Inge thinks of them, but they do become repetitive after a while. Nor is there much in the way of a plot, other than being a witness to Inge’s increasingly disturbing thought processes, which do not really translate into any major action. Finally, my main bone of contention is that Inge has not really learnt or changed as a character, there has been no development as such (and we learn next to nothing of the other characters). For a Bildungsroman, there was remarkably little ‘Bildung’ (learning).

I thought it was well-written and an interesting love-hate elegy for a lost world. Inge is remarkably clear-eyed about the GDR society and ideology as well. I thought it did a great job of giving voice to a thoroughly difficult, unlikeable and yet pitiable character. But, blame my shrinking attention span or my love for crime fiction, I did feel this book was too long at 200 pages. I think all the points would have come across, the character would have been fully described in a novella half that length.


16 thoughts on “Women in Translation Month: Judith Schalansky”

  1. I think this would make interesting reading for me after my Baltic jaunt given your comments about your family. I had been toying with reading it for some time. Thanks for making my mind up for me.

    1. It’s interesting, because GDR was more committed to the socialist ideals than many other East European countries (which were occupied by military force and with rigged elections). Also, their country only existed within that particular context, so I can imagine it’s more difficult to see it disappear so completely. Even though there was no real history going back centuries to support it…

      1. I hadn’t thought about the manufacture then disappearance of an entire country but, of course, you’re right. Other countries had national identities to reclaim – far from a good thing in some cases, clearly but for others it’s restored their pride.

  2. What an interesting way to look at that time and era, Marina Sofia. She sounds like an unsympathetic character; yet, as you say, you can see why she is the way she is, and it makes sense that she feels the way she does. I don’t think I’d care to have her as my teacher or as my daughter’s…

  3. I loved this book which I read for the IFFP Shadow Jury this year. I found it brutally funny in a Beckett/Bernhard sort of way. Inge was just unbearable for some readers but, of course, that is the point. What pulls this above a black satire is the contrast of the gorgeous illustration. I really look forward to seeing where Schalansky goes from here.

    1. She is a very interesting writer – I love the sound of her first book. It is satire with an edge, because you also can’t help feeling sorry for Inge – well, I did at least.

    1. Thank you, Victoria. It is true, sometimes reviews take up an awful lot of time – which is why I sometimes don’t have time to review at all. But at least I no longer feel obliged to read all the books even if I don’t enjoy them – I can now abandon them.

  4. It wasn’t amazing in my opinion, which is a shame as it’s a book I expected more from. It never really found that extra gear needed for a really good book…

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